By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
When I lived in Texas, of all places, I really considered trying to lose my Kentucky accent. At least for a minute.
I hadn’t even noticed I had one until my middle school years, when we briefly moved to a spot in rural Ohio after my parents divorced. I didn’t try to lose it then – not for the bullies who made fun of me or the teachers who tried to “correct” me. But my time spent across the river – as a kid, and later in college and for work – did make an impact; shortening my vowels and standardizing my pronunciation.
By the time I got to Texas, my professional accent wasn’t too far removed from the flat, standard middle American accent we’re all familiar with from television, radio, and film. If I didn’t tell you I was from Kentucky, you wouldn’t have guessed it based on my accent. However, there were still certain words, phrases, and pronunciations that gave me away.
Especially if I was relaxed, or after a couple drinks at a happy hour with co-workers, my accent would start slipping back out. Mostly I didn’t care, until I started seeing it made a difference in how my co-workers perceived me, and the assumptions they seemed to make about the respect I was due as a result.
This was the tech industry. Most of the folks had college educations. They all knew my written work was detail oriented and clear. But lunch breaks or social settings could make things awkward. Calling a soft drink a pop instead of a soda brought confusion, especially for the west coast transplants. (For Texans they’re all cokes, no matter what brand.) Hot dog sauce was a complete unknown, and prompted questions like, “Do you mean ketchup or mustard?”
And I still didn’t know green peppers weren’t supposed to be called mangos, even though I was aware of the mango fruit, for the longest time.
This has all been on my mind recently because of some hateful comments I’ve seen online and in social media conflating rural accents – especially rural Appalachian accents – with ignorance and stupidity.
Those ideas and comments are always there. Just think of what the media’s go to accent is when they’re emulating an ignorant person. Think of how your own accent changes when you’re doing the same.
The idea that rural people are ignorant, uneducated, simple rubes is nothing knew. It’s a trope as old as time. (Or at least as old as literature, theater, and film.)
But as I listen to my toddler talk, his own little accent developing and just as thick as molasses, his little mind as sharp as a tack, I don’t think about ignorance.
I think of our heritage. Our culture. The place I love and the place I hope he grows up to love. I think of the struggles of our people in this region, that brought us to where we are today.
I think of the way he says to me, “this is your sodee pop, daddy,” and stretches out his short vowel sounds and adds an extra syllable to words like “bath.”
I think of how much he sounds like his mother, and his grandpa. How much he sounds like the people I love.
I think of this, and all I hear is music. Beauty.
I hear my boy, speak in the voice of his forebears, and all I feel is joy.
Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org